Cryptic: What STO Can Learn From CO

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Grey in STOGrey in COAlthough they have only been in production for just a decade, Cryptic Studios has successfully launched three MMOGs so far in their lifetime, and already has a fourth announced. As a fan and player of their most recently launched title - Star Trek Online - I frequently find myself in a position of examining the game and comparing with Cryptic's other work to date.

Sadly, when I do so, I see STO coming up short in a few areas of design philosophy. Some are core concepts that would alter the entire flow of STO while others are smaller factors that Cryptic already seems to be on the road to correcting. All, however, are lessons that could be learned from their prior MMOG, Champions Online. And while the worlds of warp speed and tight spandex don't seem to dwell in the same reality, the core truth is that they are both MMOGs, both use the same engine and both were created by the same development company. They have more in common than not, and more to learn from one another than may be apparent at first glance.

Stumbled-Upon Content

Throughout the world of CO, you’ll frequently be given very generic instructions on where to find your next batch of missions, and along the way you’re bound to stumble across some pedestrian being assaulted by hooligans, or find a contact tucked in behind a building that you might not have noticed at first glance. To date, STO does not have more than a half-dozen of similarly discoverable objectives, out of a repertoire of missions that numbers in the several-hundreds.

CO contacts

It may seem like a small factor, and one that is frequently taken for granted in traditional MMOGs, but it is a core feature that plays to the “explorer” archetype of gamers. And given that exploration is frequently touted as one of STO's weaker features at this point in time, it stands to reason that giving players an option to discover content by accident could go a long way toward improving the feeling that we are going “where no man has gone before.”

In addition to the exploration side of things, it's possible that having fewer missions handed out by a number of static commanding officers, and instead offered by passing freighters and subspace distress beacons, may offer the world of STO a stronger sense of life and immersion. In fact, I can recall a number of episodes from every series where one captain or another would divert themselves from their primary objective in order to investigate something nearby – a spatial anomaly or passing mystery ship. Each are canon-driven references to content that was not assigned, but was instead found.

Simultaneous Objectives

kapow!CO's mission structure is a much more traditional MMOG model than STO. In CO, you visit a quest hub, load up on missions, then head out into the adventuring areas nearby and start collecting progress in the form of items and kills on multiple objectives at the same time. So while you’re snuffing the neighborhood baddies, you’re also picking up the stolen data they swiped from Dr. Goodguy's lab, as well as ransacking their camps for other prizes - working on at least three different objectives simultaneously.

STO on the other hand, has you focus on a single objective at a time. And while that focus might feel good for some folks (I know there’s a little OCD in every gamer) ultimately it ends up giving you the distinct impression that you are riding on rails. At no point do you feel in control of your destiny, despite being a captain of a starship. Instead, you're told where to go, what to do, and even when the mission goals are inane you are very rarely offered the responsibility of going after more than one at any point in time.

As well as giving us a larger sense that we, as the important high-ranking captains that we are, are actually accomplishing a number of worthy goals, this structure of working toward multiple objectives simultaneously could cut down on another of the primary gripes against STO – excessive zoning. Placing multiple missions in a single area could also allow players to also become attached to the places they visit, instead of each debris-strewn map being no more than another nameless planetary system where we destroyed some romulans/borg/cardassians/tribbles/etc.

Harvestables That Give Buffs

Very small thing, but picking up crafting supplies in CO gives you a buff that lasts like 5-10 minutes. Even better – this buff is not just for you, it also bestows that buff on anyone in the area. The buffs are also different for each different ‘class’ of harvestable (Science, Arms, Magic). So it’s possible, if you’re in a group with at least two buddies of different crafting specialities, to load up on short-term buffs to damage, resistance and regen, while you smash baddies together.

The benefits of incorporating this system into STO are many-fold. First off, it encourages you to pick up anomalies even if you have no intention of using them to craft. Next, it gives each individual crafter the potential of having their crafting skills affect their combat capabilities in a tangible way, even if the boost is a small one. And finally – and I think most importantly – it encourages the active participation of multiple players to work towards locating these anomalies that are, by and large, considered a nuisance by many STO players. By attaching a simple buff to the act of harvesting them, you can quickly change them from a speedbump and distraction, into a desirable and sought-after item.

And while we’re on the subject of crafting...

STO CraftingA Full-Blown Crafting System

The STO version of “crafting” is nothing more than a vendor system with complicated currency. At least CO has a crafting system that’s an actual CRAFTING system, complete with customization of the items that result from your efforts, and a wide assortment of gear that cannot be obtained by any other means.

To be clear though, I don't believe that CO’s crafting system is a landmark achievement in MMOG history,CO Crafting either. If Cryptic were looking for inspiration to revamp their crafting system, I believe the perfect fit would be a system similar to that employed by the now-defunct MMOG Earth and Beyond. Under the system present in EnB, players would reverse-engineer items they purchased or looted, then reassemble them into beefier versions of the original item by adding additional components. Not only would this system directly translate to STO's item system (adding suffixes with specific bonuses) but it is also perfectly canon to the Star Trek universe. How many times did Scotty, Trip or LaForge salvage a piece of half-working technology and turn it into a mechanical marvel? There's no reason our engineering crews should be any less capable.

More Public Adventuring Areas

There’s something magical about the moment those scary moments that happen in almost every other MMO: Where you’re adventuring and about to take down the next kobold or rat or whatever, and all of the sudden you’re jumped by a skeleton and begin fighting for your life to fend off the new adversary. Then, just at the moment you’ve realized that you’re doomed, in swoops a friendly player and blasts the baddies away. They save your life, and you’ve never met them before. You add them to your friends list. Ten levels later, you invite them to a dungeon with you, and join them in voice chat. You learn that they love polka music and kangaroos just as much as you do, and a bond is formed that will last beyond the group, beyond the dungeon, and beyond the game. You’ve just made a real friend. And all because you got jumped by a skeleton.

STO Social Area

That scenario simply can’t happen in STO, because nearly all of the content is cut up into small private areas that each player has the option to do completely on their own. I’ll grant that it’s cool to have the option to solo, and very cool that that same content can scale up to meet the capabilities of teams. But as it currently stands there is no extra incentive to group with other players. And, in fact, such an activity is in violation to the vast majority of existing Star Trek stories where it's almost always one ship and its crew that save the day. Not a fleet of five.

These small isolated slices of content leave the majority of players feeling cut-off from the rest of the universe. The fact that there are no public chat channels that tie these areas to the rest of the game is also upsetting, and something that DDO has managed to overcome (players in private instances are still attached to the nearest public zone’s chat). I’d love to see that in STO, if we can’t instead simply make a few areas public.

A few public areas exist in the form of Fleet Actions. However, all but one of these (the dreaded Crystalline Entity) offer very little in the way of real challenges that require large-scale tactical decisions or coordinated efforts. So even in these areas, few players feel the need to group and fewer still interact socially with the other captains they encounter. Public chat channels in these public areas are mostly bereft of life. In CO by comparison, the equivalent content is known as Public Missions which are simply specialized areas within the larger public adventuring zone. Meaning they are not isolated from the rest of the nearby content, and players chatting with each other aren't forced into isolated channels should they seek to engage this type of content. This is, in fact, how the majority of these Public Missions are defeated – by players asking each other in the public chat channels to join in on the fun and assist one another with overcoming the obstacles they present.

More Climactic Engagements


The majority of missions within CO have a boss-like battle at the end. It’s usually nothing more than a beefed up generic baddie, frequently even without a special name to set him apart from similarly-powered buddies. But it at least adds a certain amount of punctuation to completing the missions if he's the only one of his slightly-more-beefy type within the mission, and represents the final obstacle to overcome.

STO has many missions with this in place but it is so inconsistently used that it ends up being a rare treat when it occurs. Quite a few missions are bound to leave many players saying, “Oh, it's over?” and scratching at their cranial ridges upon the defeat of the final adversary. Adding in more climactic battle sequences at the end of combat-driven missions would instead leave players feeling as though they'd accomplished something important and challenging, instead of just steamrolling yet another group of peons.

Life Bonus Instead of Death Penalty

STO Death PenaltyIn STO, if you play on tougher difficulties, you receive injuries upon death that give you random debuffs which reduce your overall combat efficiency in various areas. Conversely, CO offers players an incentive for staying alive and completing missions in the form of a slight boost to all of your abilities. You can also purchase this boost from vendors, in case you’ve been dying a lot and want that edge back without having to re-earn it.

Really, in terms of core game mechanics and number crunching both work out to be about equal, so there's very little to debate on that front.

But one feels rewarding while the other feels like punishment. So which, if you’re designing a game, sounds like it makes more sense to include? A reward, or a punishment? Make your players feel good about playing your game, or bad?

Sounds like common sense, if you ask me. However, it's possible that the ship has sailed on this front, as the Death Penalty has been a thoroughly-debated topic all over STO's official forums and elsewhere, yet Cryptic continues to stick to their guns. To be perfectly frank, I don’t play STO on higher difficulties because I find there to be very little reward.


Now... let’s be fair, Champions Online has its share of lumps, and is not by any means a perfect game. In fact, my honest opinion is that STO has much more polish, more passion, and more technical innovation behind it. But despite it being the little brother to STO, I still feel it could offer quite a few lessons to big brother.

Including, quite possibly, how to become a successful F2P title? It's far too early to render a verdict on that front, but you can bet your sweet spandex that I'll be keeping a close watch on how things progress on that front for both of Cryptic's current titles, and their future projects as well.

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